Copywriting in an ‘agile’ environment

So, you’re the superstar freelance copywriter who’s been brought in to make the magic happen on a funky new app or other digital product. You’ve been told your copywriting is going to be part of a collaborative process, and it’s going to move fast, to get the job finished on time. Maybe it’s a new micro-site for a well-known brand. Maybe it’s an app for a funky, disruptive start-up. Who knows? But you do know you’ll be copywriting in an agile environment.

Agile what?

For the uninitiated, agile working brings together everyone with an interest in the project, to co-develop it, throughout the process. And not just the other business writers / copywriters and other creatives, also representatives (‘stakeholders’) from all the departments involved.

So, you might have people from marketing, brand, compliance and legal as well as back-end programmers, the business unit lead (whatever it is they do) – and more. Of course, as you’d expect, you’ll also have front-end design, UX and marketing copywriters. And they’ll all be coming together regularly, in the room or on screen, to guide the project.

The idea is that, by meeting frequently, focusing on specific objectives one at a time, they can sign-off or develop work and solve problems together quickly, to keep the project on track. It’s a great way for the copy writer, or anyone else, to stop time being wasted on nonviable ideas or tangents. And it ensures milestones are met. When it works, it’s an effective, positive and energetic environment.

Who’s who and why?

As well a copywriter, there will be lots of other contributors; they split into two types, creatives and those I call ‘co-developers’. The creatives are, as you’d expect are the freelance copywriter (or maybe they’re in-house), UX designers, front-end designers and programmers. They’ll take the brief and create their own first drafts to meet the objective for that part of the project. Before and during this process, the co-developers advise, answer questions and support. Once this process is complete, they’ll be on-hand again, to sign-off copy writing or suggest developments/alternatives.

Ouch! My Toes!!

Whether you’re a London based copywriter offering content writing services or you’re a copywriter based up in Scotland or the States, this might sound like being bothered and having your toes stepped upon. But it’s actually rather helpful. It saves you a lot of time delivering content writing and guarantees the next iteration will be closer to perfect. Co-developers have valuable information and insight around the brand, user, market, competitors etc. They know they need to be available to feed into your work, whether it’s marketing content or anything else, help it develop and, ultimately, sign it off. All of which means you, as an advertising copywriter, can move fast, without wasting time on anything that isn’t going to fly; and almost guarantees there will be no nasty surprises towards the end of the project.

Avoiding the mud

Prepare yourself, there are going to be challenging conversations. The priorities of the legal team for example, will be different to those of the designer, and in turn, different to yours as web content writer. So, you need to listen and compromise, a good copywriter wants get to something everyone is happy with, that meets their needs as well as yours. Remember, digging you heels in is a great way to get stuck in the mud.

Make like Usain Bolt

Agile projects are mapped and run in ‘sprints’. These are short time periods, which everyone (hopefully) agrees are realistic; each with specific objectives for each creative. The overall process is managed by an account manager or ‘scrum master’, who brings everyone (not just the marketing copywriter) together regularly, to keep the objectives for each sprint on track. Big whiteboards and Sharpies are very important. Often, weekly/mid-sprint meetings only involve creatives. Issues or questions for the co-developers are raised here and passed on by the scrum master, or directly by creatives. It’s likely that the co-developers join the meetings periodically, as each sprint is completed. Regular communications and meetings mean if it’s looking like a deadline is going to be missed, everyone who it affects can adjust and the project continues to move smoothly.

As a freelance copywriter I’ve been involved in some fantastic agile working environments and seen amazing results. The key thing is that everyone needs to take responsibility and be up-front about progress, problems etc.

Of course, because my experience is as a copywriter, I’ve put together a few tips for writers on agile projects.

1. Take charge and ask questions

If you’re the lead writer on the project, step up. Don’t expect anyone to spoon-feed you the website content, app content or anything else. You need to start asking questions about what’s needed from your copywriting services. What, if anything, is pre-existing (e.g. tone of voice, content elsewhere you need to reflect)? What are the deadlines? Who needs to sign-off the content work? Make sure they do it early, to avoid delays.

2. Spreadsheets are your friends

You’ll need to do some mapping. Create a big-old copywriting spreadsheet that will connect all those wireframes and/or front-end designs with your content. You’ll need to ask the UX and/or design leads to put annotations on their documents. Use these same notations on your content spreadsheet. This is your master copywriting document. It is vital, as it will allow whoever is uploading the content to know where your content goes. Make sure it all marries up.  If it doesn’t, the wrong copywriting will end up on the wrong page.

3. Control the content process

Check if anyone has done any app or website content planning. They may well have, but it’s likely you, as a professional writer, will need to take control of the content writing process and take full responsibility for delivery of all copywriting. Make sure you find out all the different content elements needed for the project (e.g. app page content, app notifications, emails triggered by buying, FAQs etc.). Have any been forgotten? What else might it need? Check copywriting priorities with the scrum master. They may already have a plan for what the copywriter needs to do when. If not, make one.

4. Build relationships early

Work out who the copywriter will need to lean on and reach out to them. For example, if it’s a financial project, you’ll need the compliance and legal teams to sign off the SEO copywriting, content and all the other copywriting. So get to know them, find out how strict the compliance team is. Let them get to know you, as a person as well as a freelance copywriter. This way you’ll get quick answers from them, and they’ll trust you understand what they need.

Getting to know people will really help. Fist bumping is optional.

5. Think in sprints

Start thinking early about how fast you work, how much copywriting you are likely to get done in the upcoming sprint and estimate carefully. Remember, it’s always better to under promise and over deliver on the marketing materials you’ll deliver, than the other way around. Factor in things like meetings, research time and how long it takes people to feed back; these can eat up your time.

6. Set deadlines for what you need

If your first draft of content is reliant on others delivering things (e.g. wireframes, facts from the product team) establish a time frame for when you will receive these. Make sure the person supplying them is aware – make this part of copywriting spreadsheet. You can’t be sitting around twiddling thumbs and blaming others – you have to be in charge of the copywriting process. Always set deadlines for feedback.

7. UX and other people’s shoes

The UX (user experience) team is crucial to creating something that people actually use. Every professional writer knows that the best copy in the world is worthless if people can’t (or won’t want to) find it. So, work with UX to help create copywriting that people understand and want to use. One of your key skills as a freelance copywriter should be putting yourself in other people’s shoes; consider the end user. If the wireframes you’re looking at don’t make sense or follow a logical path for the target audience, say so; be confident and willing to push back. But always suggest an alternative.

8. Design is beautiful

How the app/site looks has a huge impact on whether people actually use it and whether they bother to read the creative copywriting you’ve worked so hard on. So, engage with the process. Feed in, offer an opinion, make sure that what’s on screen feels right for the product, the user and what you’re all trying to achieve. Ask the front-end designer to put your copy in situ on the screen. You’ll be amazed at how different it can look and how little space you have. The earlier you can do this the better. Plus, if co-developers can view copy in situ it’s easier for them to sign it off or offer useful suggestions.

9. Communicate; NOW

If your freelance writing is going to take longer than expected, let the team know early (there will be ample opportunities at progress meetings). Agile projects rely on everyone being honest – it’s fine to change direction, to need longer or want more information, but tell everyone immediately, so they can respond appropriately.

10. There go the goalposts

Let’s face it; clients have a habit of changing their minds and making surprising decisions. And that’s true here as everywhere. When the goal posts shift, your job as a professional writer is to be crystal clear about how the change will impact your project objectives, especially in terms of time and hitting deadlines.

So, there you have it, some (hopefully) useful tips to help you make a success of your agile project.

Good luck!